The Encores! series and Jazz at Lincoln Center blasted off their new collaboration with a spectacular show called Cotton Club Parade—all-singing, all-dancing, all-Ellington. (Even the non-Ellington numbers sound like his.) Of course a big theater like the City Center can’t replicate the feeling of an intimate place like the Cotton Club—for one thing, they didn’t have miking back in the day. (Lucky them.) And presumably a show at the club was relaxed: pauses between numbers; waiters passing through with drinks clinking; customers coming and going. Whereas the Parade is a semi-Broadway show, and one of its strongest virtues is that it’s driven at breakneck speed through its 23 numbers—its energy is never allowed to falter; even segues are ultraminimal. And there’s no intermission. But authenticity of venue isn’t the point. You leave the performance with a real sense of the variety, the ingenuity, the sheer fun of what things must have been like up on 125th Street in the ’20s and ’30s.
One difference is the absence of big star performers. It’s not that they weren’t cast; it’s that we don’t have them anymore. Apart from Wynton Marsalis, listed as “Music Director and Trumpet”—his jazz band is fabulous—there aren’t many names the average theater- or dancegoer is likely to recognize. The Cotton Club was home, on and off, not only to Ellington but to Fletcher Henderson, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway and Fats Waller; to Ethel Waters, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the Nicholas Brothers and the young Lena Horne. There’s no one of their startling originality on the stage of the City Center. But there are performer after performer of total capability, and a few real standouts. The widely experienced tap dancer Jared Grimes comes on just before the end (excellent strategy) and steals the show with his “Goin’ Nuts,” choreographed by himself; with his brilliant technique and happy, generous nature he restores tap to itself after the gloomy, self-absorbed work of Savion Glover and his imitators. Jeremiah “Showtyme” Haynes also makes you happy with his rubbery legs and torso in the duet “Hottentot.” The whole company, led by the exemplary Brandon Victor Dixon, comes together in an old-time whoop-it-up number, “Freeze and Melt,” infectiously staged by the show’s director and choreographer, Warren Carlyle (currently responsible for Follies and Hugh Jackman: Back on Broadway). The one false note is Garth Fagan’s choreography to Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy,” danced here by Nicolette DePass: it, and she, seem too balletic and soupy to have made it at the Cotton Club, and her technique isn’t what it might be.
One fascination was the reconstruction of a five-man group of tappers in a number called “Peckin.’” They’re lined up, one behind the other, in their tuxedos and black patent leather shoes; gravely they tap onto the stage; they kick out; they change direction; they tap off, still in lockstep. You can see the original Five Blazers on YouTube—and you should. That was real synchronicity: those five boys are one organism. The five guys who replicate this number in Cotton Club Parade do a fine job of imitation, but they’re five guys, not a quintipede. (Or for purists, a decapede.)
Performing Arts Center, Purchase, N.Y.
A program of Paul Taylor featuring the premiere of a new work. Since it’s called Gossamer Gallants we know beforehand it’s one of his light pieces. Sometimes these can be a tad cute, but not this one. (“The nocturnal radiance of the fire-fly is purposely intended as an attraction to the opposite sex … some insect Hero may show a torch to her gossamer gallant”—Herman Melville.) Taylor loves insects and bugs, and against a colorful flywheel rendition of a crazy castle (by Santo Loquasto) he gives us a sex comedy—or at least it’s a comedy if you’re female; men may find it a little uncomfortable.
Six male fireflies in shimmery black with capelets and winglets are having a fine old time cavorting around being guys when five seductive aphid-green bugs (mantises?), with avid antennae, flit and flirt across the stage, giving them the come-on. The boys are eager for the treat—until it turns out that the girls are a lot more eager, and not just for s-e-x. They’re on a rampage, and those poor fireflies are going to be pummeled, stomped and finally exterminated—yes, the female is deadlier than the male. This is the most aggressive bunch of lady insects since the Queen and her hive in Jerome Robbins’s The Cage, but they were dead serious; Taylor’s bugs are dead funny.
What makes this preposterous jape so satisfying is the dance vocabulary Taylor has invented for it—the boys’ darting hands, like tiny cobras; the girls’ outrageous vamping. The Loquasto costumes are wonderfully goofy, but, more important, the dance itself, stripped of its surface silliness, is strongly constructed and paced. This piece may be light but it’s not a throwaway; it’s a keeper. Its one flaw: the truly awful sound quality of the recorded music. (Dances from Smetana’s The Bartered Bride.) Let’s hope that by the time the Gallants, poor things, hit the State/Koch Theater in March, either the recording or the sound system will be cured.
The program included that perennial hit Piazzolla Caldera, brooding and sensual (its recorded music sounded fine), and a Taylor masterpiece we sometimes forget: Roses, mainly to Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll.” The first long section presents five couples, the women in gorgeous long black gowns by William Ivey Long. They dance together, they split into duets, the invention never flags; we are witnessing a series of profound human encounters—as in Balanchine’s Liebeslieder Walzer. Eventually a couple in white enters: the magnificent Michael Trusnovic and the less magnificent Eran Bugge. (She can be a terrific dancer, but she doesn’t yet have the depth—or the line—for this rhapsodic work.) Roses is a triumph on every level—not only moment by beautiful moment but structurally and compositionally. We’re in Taylor Heaven and all’s right with the world.